Afghanistan — Sangin is allowing progress in rest of Helmand

Senior British offi­cers who were com­mand­ing troops in Afghanistan last win­ter have spo­ken of the progress made in key areas of Hel­mand province despite the dif­fi­cul­ties of tack­ling the insur­gency in the San­gin area. Report by Sharon Kean.

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Sol­diers from 3rd Bat­tal­ion The Rifles engage with an Afghan local dur­ing a patrol in San­gin
Source: Sergeant Kei­th Cot­ton RLC, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The Com­mand­ing Offi­cers also spoke about the lack of trust of Afghan peo­ple in their local secu­ri­ty forces, but added that sig­nif­i­cant progress was made dur­ing their six months in the­atre in devel­op­ing the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces which has been helped by the open­ing of the new police train­ing facil­i­ty in Hel­mand province.

The offi­cers were address­ing the media at a brief­ing ses­sion in Pir­bright yes­ter­day.

Brigadier James Cow­an, who led 11 Light Brigade through six tough months from Octo­ber last year, spoke of a lack of trust in home­grown secu­ri­ty forces, in par­tic­u­lar the police. He said:

“Often cap­tured Tal­iban would men­tion dur­ing inter­views the police as a prin­ci­pal rea­son for hav­ing joined the insur­gency in the first place.”

Lieu­tenant Colonel Nick Kit­son, the offi­cer in charge of troops in the San­gin area of Hel­mand province, said he had heard ‘anec­do­tal evi­dence of bad behav­iour’ among local police, adding:

“They were most often cit­ed by peo­ple in shuras as the rea­son why there was a prob­lem or why peo­ple joined the Tal­iban. I nev­er per­son­al­ly wit­nessed any­thing I would say was bad polic­ing but there was a body of anec­do­tal chat around the bazaar about how rot­ten these peo­ple were.”

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An Afghan Nation­al Police grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mo­ny at the Inter­im Hel­mand Police Train­ing Cen­tre in Lashkar Gah
Source: Pfc Luke Rollins, Min­istry of Defence, UK
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How­ev­er, Tal­iban pro­pa­gan­da may have been to blame for much of the dis­trust, he said:

“We’ve heard reports that the Tal­iban were wear­ing police uni­forms and mount­ing check­points, tak­ing people’s phones and mon­ey off them. If you’re a lit­tle farmer in a remote vil­lage, then if he tells you he’s a police­man you’re going to believe him.”

Brigadier Cow­an said the sit­u­a­tion had improved over 11 Light Brigade’s six-month deploy­ment, with the police now receiv­ing bet­ter train­ing at the Hel­mand Police Train­ing Col­lege, where between 100 and 120 recruits are grad­u­at­ing every six weeks:

“We began to see some very reli­able, very good police­men that were not only impress­ing us but also impress­ing the local peo­ple,” he said.

“It will take time to get to the lev­els that we want. It is our aim to get to 600 every eight weeks and we’ve put a lot of time and effort into mak­ing sure that the right num­ber of instruc­tors and infra­struc­ture is present to make it work.”

Lt Col Kitson’s 1,400-strong 3rd Bat­tal­ion The Rifles Bat­tle Group spent six months in San­gin, the most ‘dif­fi­cult’ area where British troops oper­ate in Hel­mand province. The Bat­tle Group lost 30 men and had more than 100 injured.

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New­ly-trained Afghan Nation­al Police offi­cers at a medal-giv­ing cer­e­mo­ny
Source: Cpl Al Crowe RAF, Min­istry of Defence, UK
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The Roy­al Marines of 40 Com­man­do are cur­rent­ly oper­at­ing in San­gin.

Lt Col Kit­son said the ter­rain and an ‘indus­try of IED-lay­ing’ in San­gin were fac­tors that made the remote area hard to oper­ate in:

“It’s in the mid­dle of nowhere, fur­ther away from gov­ern­ment con­trol, mean­ing peo­ple were at the mer­cy of drugs barons,” he said.

A change in mil­i­tary tac­tics had helped, he said, with the Bat­tle Group being bro­ken down into small­er units, allow­ing the British troops to live near­er the local peo­ple they were pro­tect­ing:

“We need­ed to be in among the peo­ple, not com­mut­ing into our engage­ment with them,” he said, “so that we didn’t just dis­ap­pear off and in our wake came the Tal­iban to cut off their ears and noses and give them a hard time for talk­ing to us.”

The new arrange­ment result­ed in more patrol bases among the peo­ple and more patrols around local areas sur­round­ing the dis­trict cen­tre and bazaar. Lt Col Kit­son added:

“These were a real thorn in the Taliban’s side. They were per­ma­nent­ly shoot­ing them up. That’s not much fun for the locals, but they were more grate­ful that the ille­gal check­points had gone on the route to and from the bazaar.”

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A mem­ber of the UK Com­bat Cam­era Team shows a group of Afghan chil­dren his video cam­era
Source: Staff Sergeant Mark Jones, Min­istry of Defence, UK
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The num­ber of patrols by the Bat­tle Group increased from eight to ten a day to almost 50 a day. And, where­as dur­ing the pre­vi­ous deploy­ment there were just 800 patrols in six months, Lt Col Kitson’s men were aver­ag­ing 1,000 a month with the new con­fig­u­ra­tion, liv­ing and work­ing with the local secu­ri­ty forces, fight­ing what he described as ‘a dif­fer­ent kind of fight’.

Progress in San­gin was also helped by the appoint­ment of a new Dis­trict Gov­er­nor, Moham­mad Sher­rif. The num­ber of stalls in the bazaar dou­bled from 500 to 1,000, there are now near­ly 50 schools, and gov­ern­ment-run health clin­ics are treat­ing more than 100 peo­ple a day. Brigadier Cow­an said:

“Whilst there were casu­al­ties, there began to be a sense of the futil­i­ty of the strug­gle among the San­gin Tal­iban. There was a sense towards the end of the tour that while it was hard for us it was just as hard for them. San­gin has allowed progress to take root in the rest of Hel­mand.”

Despite the heavy casu­al­ties, Brigadier Cow­an said the focus was on the local peo­ple rather than fight­ing, using Oper­a­tion MOSHTARAK as an exam­ple of how he tried to min­imise the use of force, by per­suad­ing insur­gents not to fight.

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An Afghan Nation­al Army-led patrol takes place in an area of Nad ‘Ali pre­vi­ous­ly under Tal­iban con­trol
Source: Staff Sergeant Mark Jones, Min­istry of Defence, UK
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He described a ‘war by mobile tele­phone’ where his com­man­ders would work with dis­trict gov­er­nors to con­duct ‘pre­ci­sion influ­ence oper­a­tions’, call­ing them to ‘con­vince them of the inevitabil­i­ty of their own defeat’.

Lieu­tenant Colonel Roly Walk­er was in charge of the Bat­tle Group based in the Nad ‘Ali area, some 70km south of San­gin.

Dur­ing the six-month tour his men were involved in more than 1,300 fire­fights, found more than 500 IEDs (62 of which det­o­nat­ed, most­ly on vehi­cles) and built 20 new check­points.

Fif­teen sol­diers died and 69 were wound­ed, and just under a hun­dred went back to the UK with non-bat­tle injuries. He said a ‘con­ser­v­a­tive’ esti­mate of insur­gents killed would be ‘north of 600’:

“This gives you a sense of the scale of the effort that the sol­diers went through,” he said. “Our job was to be with the peo­ple, if we had to fight to be with the peo­ple then so be it.”

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK